I remember my grandmother telling me a story when I was a little kid. I couldn’t have been more than five or six, and she had scolded me for scaring her with some of those little green tree frogs. It was hard for me to believe she was afraid of an animal that couldn’t have hurt her if it had wanted to, but she was afraid of frogs, and terrified of snakes. The very idea that I could and would catch snakes frightened her in ways that I would never truly understand.
My grandmother was married and living on a farm in South Georgia during The Great Depression but like most people who farmed in South Georgia at that time, their lives were never really impacted by the world outside Sumter County. What they needed to buy from a store, or going into town for, didn’t amount to very much at all, and what they had amounted to less than that. As far as they were concerned, there was little to lose and nearly nothing to gain in life, Great Depression or not. The level of poverty was not going to go up very much or down very much, and for people who grow their own food, that was just about the bottom line for it all. No matter how bad it got for the people on the outside, there was always enough to eat, even if working to get it was incredibly hard.
They washed clothes in those large galvanized tubs, with scrub boards. They would then have a tub of clean water to rinse the clothes, and a wringer to squeeze as much water out of them before they were hung on the line to dry. A little green frog jumped on my grandmother’s arm, and she screamed, and brushed him off. He landed in the tub of hot water full of clothes, those already scrubbed clean and waiting to be wrung out and then dried, and my grandmother’s day was ruined. The clothes would have to be washed again, because a frog had landed in the water, and worse, she had no way to get the now dead frog out. She had to go get my grandfather out of the field, get him to remove the frog, and then she had to start all over again, heating the water in a kettle in the yard, carrying the water from the kettle to the tub, and putting fresh clean, and hot water, in the tub next to the wringer. Hours were not made to be wasted, and the frog had reached out and devoured the better part of two hours of her life, and wasted my grandfather’s time as well.
Clean clothes were a sign that a wife was doing her part on the farm, and it wouldn’t do for a neighbor to see a man toiling the field in a shirt that had not been ironed. Ironing was done by heating a device that looks much like the irons we use, on occasion, but they were simple flat pieces of iron. They had to be heated close enough to the fire to be hot, but not so close so that soot might get on them, for that would mean having to wash the clothes again.
Cooking breakfast was done before dawn, after the eggs had been collected, after the cows had been milked, and after the biscuits had been baked. The cleaning of clothes, the ironing, the heating of the water in the kettle outside, the preparing of meals to be cooked for lunch and supper, the caring of the livestock, the sewing, and everything that had to be done during the day was pretty much planned out, a ritual of sorts, a habit of living, and anything, anything at all that cost you time was time you could never really get back in that one day, frog or no frog.
I think people started going to church three times a week simply to have some sort of break in the work, but the line between the spiritual world and the world of everyday life was a thin line. Satan was as real as someone who lived right down the road. God was someone who was with you every moment of your life, if you lived your life rightly. Every transaction between you and your neighbors was judged by others and by God, to see if you treated someone fairly in a deal, or if you tried to cheat them in some way. How clean your clothes were, how neatly you dressed on Sundays, how much respect your wife showed you in public, and how much respect you showed to her, all of these things defined who you were to other people because who you were was the only status symbol to be had.
Decades later, when she told me this story, we were in a little restaurant in Americus Georgia. I had asked her for a dime for the juke box, and it seemed to her very odd, very strange, that a dime would be given for such a reason. It was luxury enough to eat in a restaurant, to eat fried chicken you hadn’t raised and killed on your own, and to drink soda water, and to use things like ketchup and salt freely. Why, there we were, in the middle of the day, and we had planted nothing, pulled no weeds, tended no livestock, and it was already the middle of Summer.
A little green tree frog had landed on the glass outside where we sat, in the air conditioned building, and she began to tell me the story of how she had ruined a day of her life because of a frog just like that one. She told me of how the hot water burned her hands if she didn’t take the clothes out quickly, and how there was no electricity at all back then, not where they lived, and to this day she liked watching water boil on a stove.
She fished a dime out of her purse and gave it to me, and I went to the juke box and very briefly felt a sense of waste. The sings I played were my favorite at that time, and to this day, I still remember them because of that conversation. Sylvia’s Mother by Dr. Hook, Reelin in years by Steely Dan, and You Don't Mess Around With Jim by Jim Croce. Three songs for a dime, or one for a nickel, and for reasons I could not explain, to my grandmother, that didn’t seem to be much of a bargain.